Where W. Got Compassion
Where W. Got CompassionBy David Grann - New York Times, 9/12/1999One Sunday afternoon in Austin, Tex. -- not far from the Governor's Mansion -- Marvin Olasky, the man widely regarded as the godfather of "compassionate conservatism," is working on his most recent disciple. As we drive through the city after services at the Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Olasky keeps looking in his rearview mirror at Fred Cantu, a tattooed ex-con who is sitting in the backseat, as if trying to discern something he can't quite make out.
Cantu has just been released from prison for the third time, and Olasky, an ordained elder, is trying to help him -- not through the state's traditional welfare services but through his own faith-based program, New Start, a model of the philosophy on which George W. Bush is staking his Presidential campaign.
"Fred just needs to show he can stick to a job," Olasky says to me as he eyes Cantu. "Then he can take some writing classes at the community college, and then who knows?"
Cantu blinks, as if trying to imagine it. "I hardly write nobody," he says. "I was writing my mother, but I stopped doing that because I don't want to upset her."
Olasky is still wearing his church clothes -- khakis, a blazer and tie -- and tightly grips the steering wheel as the car rumbles through the Texas hills. A delicate man with little round glasses and a neatly cropped beard, this former Communist seems like an unlikely figure to have emerged as one of the stars in Bush's constellation of policy wonks. Yet Olasky, once a relatively obscure author of a dozen books, has hit the conservative movement, in the words of The Weekly Standard's editor, Bill Kristol, like "a thunderbolt."
In July, Bush vowed, in his first major policy speech as a candidate, to "rally the armies of compassion in our communities to fight a very different war against poverty" -- one based on religious and community groups like New Start -- and afterward he paused to thank Olasky. "He has really been one of the people who has been most helpful," Bush told me, in shaping these ideas. Indeed, when I ask one of Bush's top aides to explain what a compassionate conservative administration might look like, he says simply, "Talk to Marvin."
Now, in the car, Olasky describes all the things that Cantu will have to do when he enrolls in New Start -- everything from attending Bible study and meeting with a church mentor -- that are central to what Olasky and Bush have called "the transforming power of faith."
But whether faith or even private charities are really a viable or appropriate alternative to government assistance is open to debate. "To expect small-scale fragmented groups to bear the brunt of the most pressing concerns of society is foolish," says Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Liberals and even some conservatives observe that the welfare state arose precisely because in the first part of this century, private charities failed to adequately address the needs of the poor.
And so far, Olasky's own personal test with Cantu does not appear to be going well. The subject, who has just served a three-year stint for burglary, seems to be only partially listening.
"Can I borrow your truck?" he asks suddenly. Olasky squints in the mirror. "We'd have to work out an arrangement," he says. "We would know the mileage -."
"Obligations are O.K.," Cantu interjects. "I need that discipline."
By the time Olasky pulls into the bus station, Cantu has seemingly undergone a miraculous transformation. "I'm enthusiastic about God," he says. "I'm on fire to serve Jesus Christ!"
He then slams the door, leaving behind the faint smell of tobacco. As we drive back through the valley, I ask Olasky if he thinks Cantu will make it this time out. "The question is," he says, "has this been a genuine conversion?"
Olasky has always had the conviction of a convert, of someone who is not only embracing one set of beliefs but is also actively repudiating another. He was born in Massachusetts in 1950 to second-generation Russian Jewish immigrants, and early on began his search for a unifying theory of the universe, his own private Big Bang. Initially, he found it where all the Olaskys had -- in the Torah. But as a teen-ager, he grew increasingly skeptical of religion, until, under the spell of his older brother and the writings of H. G. Wells, he disputed God's existence altogether. "I was bar mitzvahed at 13," he says, "and an atheist by 14."
It wasn't until college, however, that he truly renounced his roots. In 1968, as Bush was finishing his four years at Yale as a cocky athlete and member of the secret fraternity Skull and Bones, Olasky was enrolling as a shy and awkward freshman. Both men -- in what would be essential to their eventual spiritual and intellectual convergence -- were equally adrift. But while Bush drank to excess and purportedly participated in branding rituals with his fraternity brothers, Olasky grew his sideburns long and read Marx and Lenin. Even in his activism, his classmates say, he was oddly "puritanical" and "monkish," once going on a five-day hunger strike to improve the conditions of university workers.
After graduating in only three years, he married his high-school sweetheart and settled in Oregon, where, consumed with visions of revolution, he became almost an ascetic. Thin and drawn, he grew a beard down to his chest like Fidel Castro's and did something almost unheard of at that late date: he joined the Communist Party. To sign up then "was truly outlandish," says Todd Gitlin, a leader of the New Left. "It meant to join the party of Brezhnev, to join the party that had invaded Czechoslovakia."
For Olasky, however, Communism represented what he had always been looking for -- a codified worldview, a theory with neat rules and by-laws. He wasn't an idle member. "Lenin had said it would be necessary to 'crawl on one's belly, like a snake,' for the good of the revolution," he once wrote, "and I was ready to slither." As his marriage crumbled, he hopped a Russian freighter and toured the Soviet Union. Upon his return, he propagated his beliefs as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, often bullying his fellow students in class.
But while researching his dissertation, in part on the persecution of Reds in Hollywood, he underwent his ultimate conversion. "God changed my worldview not through thunder or a whirlwind," he later wrote, "but by . . . a repeated, resounding question in my brain: What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God?" During this time, he met Susan Northway, who would become his second wife.
By 1973, he had resigned from the Communist Party and, once again, turned against everything he had earlier believed. "We asked ourselves which denomination represented the extreme opposite of the hard left," Susan recalls. "Then we looked in the phone book and found the Conservative Baptist Church. By the end of that summer of '76, we had come to Christ."
When he finally handed in his dissertation -- hailing the anti-Communists instead of denouncing them -- his teachers were stunned. "I couldn't accept it," says Cecil Eby, his professor at the time. "I felt like he had gone from being extremely partisan on one side to being extremely partisan on the other. It was baffling."
Jew, atheist, Communist, evangelical Christian -- Olasky has been on quite a journey. Despite alienating his former comrades and family -- I didn't tell my friends," his mother says now -- Olasky pursued his new faith with the same zeal he had pursued his old ones. As if in penance for his heretical past, the one-time Marxist went to work for the public-affairs office at DuPont, where he cranked out endless speeches on capitalism.
Later, when he took a job teaching communications at the University of Texas and couldn't find a traditional enough congregation, he founded his own -- a breakaway faction of the Presbyterian Church -- with a handful of families. It wasn't, though, until 1989, while on leave and researching a new book on charities, that he stumbled upon what would become the cornerstone of his and, to a large extent, Bush's political philosophy.
In the stacks of the Library of Congress, Olasky found dusty texts on 19th-century philanthropists, men and women like Charles Brace, a writer and missionary who worked with abandoned children in New York. Rather than merely distributing handouts, they imposed demands and discipline on the poor, and in contrast to the current welfare state, in Olasky's view, provided the spiritual as well as material sustenance that shapes character.
To test his theories, Olasky dressed up as a beggar -- complete with stocking cap and plastic bag -- and visited several shelters in Washington, D.C. For two days, as he wandered from kitchen to kitchen, he received plenty of soup and bread. But no one, he says, ever asked him why he was there or helped him to help himself. Nor did anyone, even in the church-run charities, offer him the one thing he says he kept asking for: a Bible. "Most of these places," he says, outchurching the churches, "have forgotten that people have souls." In 1992, Olasky finally published his findings in The Tragedy of American Compassion.
Initially the book went almost unnoticed, and those few who reviewed it decried it as "romantic," "shallow" and "bizarre" -- the work of a "utopian" crank. But although most academics dismissed the book, a small coterie of Beltway conservatives began to circulate it privately. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett hailed it as the "most important book on welfare and social policy in a decade" and handed a copy to the new Republican Speaker, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich read it from cover to cover and liked it so much, he had it distributed to all the incoming freshmen. In his first address to the nation, Gingrich declared: "Our models are Alexis de Tocqueville and Marvin Olasky. We are going to redefine compassion and take it back."
Overnight, Olasky, the perennial convert, had seemingly converted an entire party. A small band of policy wonks and legislators -- many of whom would go on to work for Bush -- began calling themselves "compassionate conservatives." This little-known professor was suddenly a fixture on the television talk shows and in the back corridors of Congress. While slashing the welfare state, Olasky's disciples sought to unleash an outpouring of charitable works through Federal grants, tax credits and partnerships between church and state. These measures represented only the first step in what Olasky regarded as a revolution -- turning the Government's responsibility to the poor over to private charities.
Yet despite all the lip service paid to compassionate conservative ideas, even these modest initiatives never materialized. Almost all of the proposals, which were sponsored by Senator Dan Coats of Indiana and had names like the Character Development Act, were killed before they even reached the floor -- largely at the hands of the same Republicans who had wrapped themselves only months earlier in Olasky's language of compassion.
Far from helping the poor, his critics charged, Olasky had provided a smokescreen for guiltlessly cutting back the welfare state. Even Olasky compares what some Republicans did to the poor to pulling the knife out of the back of a person who had been mugged and then leaving him on the street to bleed. "You can't just say, You're fine -- get up," he says. "You have to spend a lot of time patching the guy up." But to his critics, Olasky's outrage only seemed like evidence of his naivete.
Dejected and dispirited, Olasky returned to Austin, where he, like Charles Brace in the 1800's, waged his solitary crusade. He helped found the New Start program through his church; he worked with Labor Integrity Faith Thrift (LIFT), which eased people off welfare, and with his wife he ran a crisis center for pregnant women. Their house, which overlooked the Shinoak Valley, soon overflowed with good works. At one point, Olasky showed up with a homeless woman he found living in a car. Later, he adopted a 3-week-old black child, telling his family, "God adopts all of us." It was as if he were single-handedly trying to prove the viability of his own theories.
In 1993, Olasky got a phone message from George W. Bush asking to meet. By this time, Bush, who was running for Governor of Texas, had also "recommitted his life to Christ." Both men prayed daily and had a visceral sense of their own sins. While Bush had drunk too heavily in the 1980's, Olasky had divorced his first wife -- an act that contrasted markedly with his later Christian writings about family values. Both also concealed the details of their transgressions: while Bush has dodged the drug question, Olasky had -- until a family member accidentally mentioned it to me -- carefully hidden his divorce from the press. After an hourlong meeting with Bush, Olasky was sure he had found a new messenger for his ideas. But Bush didn't call again for two years.
Then in 1995 -- six months after Bush was swept into office -- state employees of Texas threatened to close down Teen Challenge, a drug program centered on religious conversion, ostensibly because it had violated safety codes. Some 300 supporters of the organization -- holding signs that read "Because of Jesus I Am No Longer a Debt to the State of Texas" -- staged a small rally at the Alamo, the Lone Star symbol of defiance.
In the dual role of advocate and journalist, Olasky showed up with pen in hand. "It was real hot, and we were both sweating," recalls the Rev. James Heurich, executive director of Teen Challenge of South Texas. "He was just smiling and grinning at me, and I had the sense that this was fun for him. But I didn't think anything was going to come of it. Next thing I know, we're in The Wall Street Journal."
Governor Bush, caught in one of the first crises of his administration, tried to turn the confrontation into a political opportunity. Seeking out Olasky for guidance, he quickly set up a task force, which recommended unraveling the state's regulatory grip over faith-based groups. Despite charges that he was violating the separation between church and state, Bush enacted a spate of legislation that promoted religious drug-treatment centers, prison ministries and church-run day-care centers. The legislation didn't allocate more money for the poor so much as redirect it to faith-based programs by removing regulations that stood in their way -- allowing Bush to win accolades with the religious right and at the same time to avoid spending more money on social services. Olasky, the congenital true believer, became a Bush convert. "I don't think this is just rhetoric," he says.
The conversion seems to be mutual. By this summer, Bush had not only made Olasky the head of his policy subcommittee on religion but also embraced broad strokes of Olasky's vision. In addition, he anointed Stephen Goldsmith, the Mayor of Indianapolis, who has already implemented key elements of Olasky's policies, his top domestic adviser for the campaign. Goldsmith, who told me he wishes he had written Olasky's book, quickly became the author's main conduit to the Governor. And at a small church in Indianapolis in July, Bush called for more faith-based programs that practice "severe mercy," approvingly citing Teen Challenge's maxim, "If you don't work, you don't eat."
Bush then rattled off various proposals to promote charities, including $8 billion worth of tax credits and other incentives. The emphasis, however, was as much on the power of faith as on the power of new programs. "Sometimes our greatest hope is not found in reform," he said. "It is found in redemption."
"Did you hear the speech?" Olasky asked me afterward. "This is effective compassion." But this religious component is also what Olasky's critics find so terrifying. Even Bush's aides take pains to distance their candidate from Olasky's proselytizing. "Marvin is an evangelical Christian, and Bush is an evangelical Christian," says John J. Dilulio, one of Bush's informal advisers. "But Bush does not believe that every faith-based program is about religious conversion." Many of the programs that the Governor supports, however, are on a proselytizing mission. Heurich at Teen Challenge sums up the secret of his success in two words: Jesus Christ. And Olasky's ultimate goal is not simply to help the poor through private or nonprofit charities but also to push religion -- specifically evangelical Christianity -- deep into the public sphere.
When I ask Olasky if people should be afraid of widespread conversions under a compassionate-conservative order, he says they will face a utilitarian choice. "Are you willing to put up with these religious practices that you feel very uncomfortable with but nevertheless you see the success of? Or would you rather end those practices and see more assaults, rapes, drug use and homicides?"
At one point, as we are driving around in his car, Olasky even attempts to convert me. "I don't want to be pushy," he says, but "there's a good church you should go to" in Washington. He also recommends I read "Christianity Is Jewish" and join an on-line Bible study for journalists. His mother later tells me, "If I converted, it would make Marvin happy."
Indeed, on close inspection, many of Bush's "armies of compassion" resemble tiny battalions of Marvin Olasky's. This summer, Olasky set out on a poverty tour with his 14-year-old son to study the first seeds of his brave new world. Traveling from the ghettos of Houston to Philadelphia with his Bible and his maps laid out on his dashboard, he encountered ex-cons, drug addicts and gang members who had committed their lives to Christ.
When I catch up with him in Indianapolis, he and his son are visiting a small warehouse that has been converted into a gymnastics school for inner-city children. The program's director, the Rev. Tim Streett, talks about his own conversion after his father was shot in front of him as a boy. In the background, two kids jump in their bare feet on a trampoline to the beat of a Christian rock song: "Let us pray, let us pray . . . every moment of the day."
That same afternoon, at a small two-story school financed in part by city grants, Ermil Thompson, a frail 68-year-old woman, tells Olasky that in 1990 she had a vision from God to transform the building into a refuge for children from Satan. "Lord bless you," Olasky says, pumping her hand. Such people are reminiscent of the missionaries from the end of the 19th century. Dedicated and devout, they possess the rare energy and drive to run such programs, where the pay is poor and the prestige is worse. "Our most successful people," says Goldsmith, "are zealots in the good sense of the word."
Yet if Streett and Thompson represent the "quiet river of goodness and kindness" that Bush will need to supplement the welfare state, they also present the most difficult and delicate issue for the Bush campaign: how do you promote faith-based healers -- these so-called zealots -- without allowing them to proselytize their faith?
In Indianapolis, there is actually evidence of the increasingly blurred line between church and state. "I encourage them to play a shell game," says Bill Stanczykiewicz, who until recently was in charge of running Goldsmith's initiatives. When we arrive at Village House, which offers a summer program that the Mayor's office has assisted with thousands of dollars in grants, students are hanging signs in brightly colored crayon that read, "Listen to Jesus."
Olasky's eyes initially brighten with excitement, then narrow, as he contemplates the reaction of city officials and private donors. "I hope that doesn't make them go ballistic," he says. "Don't worry," says the program director, the Rev. Ann Henning-Byfield, "they'll be down by the time they come by."
Goldsmith, like Bush, insists that under compassionate conservative policies, no one will be forced into a faith-based program. There will always be options -- and many of the charities like Big Brothers/Big Sisters will have no faith component at all. But if religion is the most provocative element of Bush's vision, critics say its bigger challenge is more worldly: there simply aren't enough Marvin Olaskys out there to replace Uncle Sam.
Even Bush acknowledges on the stump that Government cannot be completely replaced by charities, and his aides say his administration would conduct only a kind of grand experiment -- a four-year trial period to see which programs actually work best: the state's, the private sector's or a combination of the two. But many fear that any experiment at all that depends on the altruism of local individuals will mean, as Dianne Stewart of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas puts it, a "step back even further from a safety net for the poor."
Modern American life doesn't leave much time for sainthood. Colin Powell's volunteer summit has not produced the philanthropic outpouring that many expected. According to Investment Sector, the percentage of American adults who volunteer has actually declined since the late 1980's. And despite the robust economy, corporate giving is down.
"If everyone was like Olasky," says Representative Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican, "he would be right: we wouldn't need government." But if everyone isn't, who will man Bush's armies of compassion?
Photos: The zealot and the candidate: Marvin Olasky with Gov. George W. Bush, both Yale graduates, evangelical Christians, Republicans. (Michael O'Brien)